Dispossession, Discrimination, and Civil Disobedience in Sheikh Jarrah

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The May 14th demonstration began as any other. Some 400 protestors convened in the small park in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah as they have done each Friday for months. The bus from Tel Aviv unloaded activists from the coastal city; the circle of drummers, the trade mark of the Sheikh Jarrah movement, began infusing the event with electrifying rhythm. A line was forming in front of the stand in the back where activists and visitors can stock up on ‘Free Sheikh Jarrah’ tee-shirts. Yet the atmosphere was more tense than usual.

Just two days earlier, thousands of settlers from the West Bank descended on Jerusalem, all wearing white and wrapped in Israeli flags, dancing in tightly knit circles and chanting biblical phrases. They were celebrating ‘Jerusalem Day’, a national holiday commemorating the so-called unification of Jerusalem in the ‘67 war. For settlers, 1967, rather than 1948, is the true watershed year in Israeli history; and Jerusalem Day is increasingly becoming their Independence Day. And this year Sheikh Jarrah, the current hotspot in the struggle for and against the ‘Judaization’ of East Jerusalem, was a major attraction in their violent pilgrimage.

Until recently, Sheikh Jarrah was a quiet neighbourhood nestled between the Hebrew University’s Mt. Scopus campus and Road 1, a busy highway separating the Eastern and Western parts of the city. However, the neighbourhood’s borderline location makes it a prime target for settler organisations determined to undermine the possibility of dividing Jerusalem into two capitals. Their rationale is simple enough: the Clinton Peace Plan of December 2000 stipulates the outlines for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement in Jerusalem. ‘The general principle,’ it says, ‘is that Arab areas are Palestinian and Jewish ones are Israeli’. By planting small Jewish enclaves within Palestinian neighbourhoods the settlers intend to render the idea of an ‘Arab area’ in East Jerusalem obsolete. They have successfully installed tiny, heavily guarded, Jewish compounds in a ring around the Old City — in Silwan, Ras El Amoud, Jabel Mukaber among other places. Sheikh Jarrah was simply next in line in the plan to create facts on the ground.

In Sheikh Jarrah, however, the settlers’ modus operandi has been different; to understand it, we must backtrack quite a bit into the past. According to Jewish tradition, Sheikh Jarrah is the burial place of Simeon the Just, a high priest during the time of the Second Temple. In the late ninteenth century, Jewish organisations purchased lands and set up a small Jewish neighbourhood around the cave identified as his tomb. During the Arab Rebellion of 1936 most Jewish residents fled the neighbourhood, and in 1948 the area, along with the rest of East Jerusalem, fell under Jordanian rule. The 1948 war gave rise to what is still known as the Palestinian refugee problem, but in 1956 the Jordanian government made a creative attempt to alleviate the situation of a small group of refugees: twenty eight Palestinian families who fled — mainly from West Jerusalem and Jaffa — during the war were offered tracts of land in an olive grove adjacent to the tomb in exchange for their UNRWA refugee cards. They did not forget their former homes but, coming to terms with a new reality, they settled into their new neighbourhood and were refugees no longer.

After Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, these families — the Al-Kurds, the Ghawis, the Hanouns, and the Sabbags, among others — could visit their former houses and fields in Israel after nearly twenty years of separation but even though they were now permanent residents of Israel, they could not reclaim their properties. In 1972 these families were notified that ownership of their new homes in Sheikh Jarrah had reverted to the pre-48 Jewish homeowners, who were now able to lay claim to their former properties. The Palestinian families were ordered to pay rent to two committees which claimed the land, the Sephardic Community Committee and the Knesset Israel Committee, which later sued the families for non-payment of rent. More than sixty years after rebuilding their lives in Sheikh Jarrah, these Palestinian families are now being evicted by court orders obtained by the settler organisation which has bought the land from the Sephardic Committee. Four families have been thrown into the street already and twenty four more await their turn.

At the heart of this legal scandal lies Israel’s Absentee Property Law which officially strips Palestinians of ownership rights over their pre-1948 properties. Jews, however, are free to reclaim possession of pre-48 assets. And this inequality before the law is responsible for the current crisis in Sheikh Jarrah. Now, it should be emphasised that events in Sheikh Jarrah are not very different from countless other injustices perpetrated across the rest of Israel and the Occupied Territories: a massive, sophisticated, state apparatus mobilises behind a group of Jewish fundamentalists in the interests of dispossessing Palestinians. What makes Sheikh Jarrah unique is that many Israelis have rallied, deciding they are simply not going to let this one slide. What began in small solidarity vigils in August 2009 quickly evolved into weekly demonstrations in which hundreds, sometimes thousands, of Israelis renounce Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem.

In December, the Jerusalem police noticed that these demonstrations were gaining momentum and decided to put an end to them. They arrested more than a hundred activists, but the demonstrations kept growing. In fact, in the wake of these arrests, the legality of which had been questioned by the court, more than 4,000 people rallied in Sheikh Jarrah in early March. So the police resorted to a different tactic. Although Sheikh Jarrah is still predominantly Palestinian, the police began referring to it as the ‘Simeon the Just neighborhood’, and claiming that the demonstrations there were a provocation against the neighbourhood’s Jewish residents. Each Friday, they cordoned off the area of the disputed houses, and forcefully drove the protest to a nearby park. When the activists appealed to the Supreme Court, the police chief claimed that the situation in Sheikh Jarrah was simply too explosive to allow political activity. But on Jerusalem Day, hundreds of boisterous settlers flocked to Sheikh Jarrah, and were allowed to demonstrate right in the middle of the neighbourhood. Suddenly, Sheikh Jarrah was not so explosive.

And this brings us back to the May 14th demo. Furious at the police’s politically biased conduct, the Sheikh Jarrah activists walked up to the police barrier and demanded to hold their demonstration where the settlers had held theirs just two days earlier. When the officers refused, they sat down on the road in front of the barrier. They announced that the police’s total disregard for the rule of law justifies non-violent civil disobedience, held hands, and chanted slogans against the occupation. It was clear that the Riot Police was going to crack down on us. But nobody flinched. We knew that this was a fight for the soul of our country, an act of solidarity with the oppressed and the dispossessed, a moral imperative. For more than thirty long minutes, activists were beaten and dragged by stout and livid policemen. Fourteen of our friends were arrested; arms and ribs were broken. But every activist brutally dragged away came right back, battered and bruised, to sit in front of the barrier. We did not make it into the neighbourhood then but we will one day. For it might well be that Sheikh Jarrah is where the future of our country shall be determined. And we will not back down.

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